Multiple sclerosis patients in 'lottery' for new treatment: Demand in the US for a recently approved drug is outstripping supply. Liz Hunt reports

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THOUSANDS of multiple sclerosis sufferers in the US have been chosen by computer 'lottery' to receive limited supplies of the first effective drug for the disease.

Doctors were asked to nominate patients who might benefit from Betaseron when it became available on 1 October. The names of those who would get the injections were chosen at random.

Betaseron is a genetically engineered version of a protein produced naturally by the body and clinical trials show it can cut the frequency of MS attacks by one- third and serious attacks by a half. The drug had an effect two months after treatment began and its effects lasted three years.

MS, a disease of the central nervous system, affects 350,000 people in the US and 80,000 in Britain. It is not known how Betaseron works, but MS is thought to have an auto-immune component - in which the immune system reacts on the body - and the drug may 'damp down' attacks.

The unprecedented decision to distribute the drug in this way was the result of a huge demand for the first limited supplies after the US Food and Drug Administration decided to 'fast-track' the licence application following publication of trial data in April. The drug costs about dollars 10,000 ( pounds 6,500) for a year's supply.

An estimated 20,000 US patients will get Betaseron in the first year, out of about 100,000 with the remitting form of the disease for which it has been approved. After the allocation of the first supply, the drug will be given on a first-come first-served basis, a report in the British Medical Journal says.

Schering Health Care in the UK said that Betaseron would not be available in Britain before 1995 and that British clinical trials tentatively scheduled to start next year were still under discussion. No British patient would be able to get supplies from the US, it said. An estimated 30,000 patients in UK may benefit from the drug.

John Walford, general secretary of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said last night that Betaseron 'is not a cure but it is the first substance to show advantage to patients in this way'.